When Simratpal Singh entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2006, he did something he thought he would never have to do: Shave his beard.
"One of the hardest things I had to do was look in the mirror every day and shave," said Singh, whose Sikh religion requires men to grow beards as an article of faith. "Your self-esteem was kind of shattered."
Singh and three Army enlistees have won permission to wear beards and turbans after filing federal lawsuits that seek to force the Pentagon to accommodate those who wear beards for religious reasons.
Singh, now a captain at an engineering battalion at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, won an administrative exception two weeks ago under an Army policy that allows exemptions to the no-beard policy on a case-by-case basis. On Friday, the Army granted similar exceptions to three Sikh enlistees who had filed a separate lawsuit. Those enlistees will be allowed to wear beards and turbans when they report for basic training next month.
Harsimran Kaur, legal director for the Sikh Coalition, which filed the lawsuits, said the coalition will continue to pursue its lawsuits to obtain a permanent policy change that allows all Sikhs to serve and keep their beards. She said Sikhs served in the U.S. military at least as far back until World War I, and then without incident until 1981, when the military implemented its no-beards rule.
While there is a process for service members to seek an exception on a case-by-case basis, Kaur said it is onerous. Kaur said she is aware of only eight Sikhs who have been granted exemptions, including the four who just recently received them.
Ben Sakrisson, a Pentagon spokesman, said requests for religious accommodations "are assessed on a case-by-case basis and should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on mission accomplishment, including military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline."